In Job's Balances \ III \ Gethsemane Night|
Pascal first came into collision with Rome when he wrote the Lettres Provinciales. It seems, at first sight, as though he were already beginning his own defence in these letters (which were also what laid the foundation of his reputation). But this was not the case. It is Port Royal, Jansen, Arnaud, Nicole, and the common cause that he is defending here. It is for this reason that their historic significance is so great: even to this day many critics regard them as Pascal's most important work. He enters on his fight with the Jesuits armed with the whole panoply of intellectual and moral arguments; that is to say, he assumes that reason and morality are a universal human tribunal, competent both for himself and Rome. In one of his last letters he does indeed let slip the admission that he wants nothing and fears no one, but it is not with these weapons that he fights. Neither Port Royal nor any one else, no matter how penetrating their understanding, would have been able to distinguish here the terrible words "Ad te, Domine Jesu, appello" which inspired the Pensées. On the contrary, Pascal, like Arnaud, Nicole, and others, has only one thought in these letters: to say no more than what semper ubique et ab omnibus creditum est. His strength is that he feels (rightly or wrongly) that he has behind him, not the problematical support of God, who is far away and whom no one has ever seen, but the real cooperation of all reasonable and right-thinking men. Every one understands that a "sufficient grace which does not suffice" is palpable and ridiculous nonsense.
Later, when he came to write the Pensées, he acquired the conviction that one must not count on the support of "every one" and that the "semper ubique et ab omnibus" is worth no more than the "sufficient grace which does not suffice". He says:
Do not think that this "we" was said out of politeness, and that by this word "we" Pascal meant "they", that is to say others and not himself. No, it was of himself that he was speaking. When he wrote the Lettres Provinciales the opinion of five or six neighbours sufficed to make him personally feel that he was approved by the whole world, by the men of his own generation and of the future. If you do not believe this, read another extract where he expresses his thought with complete frankness, leaving nothing to the imagination:
- "Nous sommes si présomptueux que nous voudrions être connus de toute la terre, et même des gens gui viendront quand nous ne serons plus; et nous sommes si vains gue l'estime de cinq ou six personnes gui nous environnent nous amuse et nous contente." ("We are so presumptuous that we would wish to be known by all the world, even by those who will come after, when we shall be no more; and we are so vain that the esteem of five or six neighbours delights and contents us.")
Here it is all clear beyond dispute: man does not write, speak, or even think with the purpose of finding out the truth. No one here is interested in the truth; what people want instead of the truth is a convenient set of judgments which can profit or suit the greatest possible number of men. We say advisedly the greatest "possible" number, so that if one cannot speak urbi et orbi, if it is impossible that Rome and the whole world should accept what one has to say, then the approval of five or six persons will suffice: for Pascal Port Royal, for Caesar some remote village. Thus the illusion of "semper ubique et ab omnibus" [always, everywhere and by all - AK.] is saved, and we can at least consider ourselves the upholders of an "ecumenical" truth.
- "La vanité est si ancrée dans le coeur de l'homme gu'un soldat, un goujat, un cuisinier, un crocheteur se vante et veut avoir ses admirateurs; et les philosophes mêmes en veulent; et ceux gui écrivent contre veulent avoir la gloire d'avoir bien écrit; et ceux gui le lisent veulent avoir la gloire de l'avoir lu; et moi qui écris ceci ai peut-être cette envie..." ("Vanity is so anchored in the heart of man that a soldier, a soldier's servant, a cook, a porter brags and wishes to have his admirers. Even philosophers wish for them. Those who write against it wish to have the glory of having written well; and those who read it desire the glory of having read it. I who write this have perhaps this desire.")
In the Provinciales there is no word of the abyss. Pascal's sole object is to get reason and morality on to his side, the side of his friends at Port Royal. The Provinciales are, in general, quite up to the scientific level of their period, and historians look upon the Letters as a progressive production. I repeat that there is no trace of the abyss, and still less of any attempt to substitute the arbitrariness of a fantastic being.
That is why, properly speaking, we do not find the true Pascal and his "ideas" in the Provinciales. He exchanges polemics with the Jesuits, but, saying nothing about himself, he only castigates the ridiculous and revolting theses launched by his adversaries, or rather, the enemies of Port Royal. He hales the Jesuits before the judgment seat of common sense, of morality; if they are unable to justify themselves there, it proves that they are in the wrong and can have no more to say. He never suggests that it could be possible to be condemned in such a court and yet be in the right.
Hardly a word, either, of salvation by faith and of his mysterious conception of "grace" which would make one turn one's back on all that men have held and hold true and reasonable. Such thoughts as these are all reserved for a future work, for that "Apology for Christianity" which, if Pascal had managed to complete it, would have answered its purpose even less than the Thoughts which have come down to us. When Pascal was writing his Pensées he forgot that here on earth men think and ought to think only of others. But this should not be forgotten in writing an apology; the object of an apology is to get "universal" concurrence; if not actual, at least apparent, if not of the whole world, then at least of five or six, of an intimate group. But a great proportion of the Pensées could not count on the concurrence even of such a limited number. We know that the book was strictly censored by Port Royal. Port Royal itself was unable to bear these new truths. And, indeed, an apology ought to be written by a man who has the solid earth and not an abyss beneath his feet; by a man who is able to justify God to Rome and to the whole world, and not by one who wants to bring the world and Rome before the judgment seat of God.
It is for this reason that Pascal's suggested interpretations of the revelation of the Bible were not only unacceptable to Rome, who acted as dictator to half if not the whole world, but also failed to please the little Jansenist community. They, though faithful to St. Augustine, or perhaps just on account of this very fidelity, had also, like Rome, their own pretensions to the potestas clavium. I have already said that St. Augustine never dared refuse to acknowledge the sovereign rights of reason, he was too utterly swayed by the traditions of Stoicism, and Neo-Platonism, which had completely and entirely accepted the ideas of Stoicism. Pascal knew this. He writes: "Saint Augustin. La raison ne se soumettrait jamais si elle ne jugeait qu'il y a des occasions où elle se doit soumettre. Il est donc juste qu'elle se soumette quand elle juge gu'elle se doit soumettre." ("St. Augustine. Reason would never submit, if it did not judge that there are some occasions on which it ought to submit. It is then right for it to submit, when it judges that it ought to submit.") These words, as one of Pascal's commentators has justly observed, are directly connected with the following passage from Letter CXX of St. Augustine:
"Proinde ut fides praecedat rationem, rationabiliter jussum est. Nam si hoc praeceptum rationabile non est, ergo irrationabile est; absit, si igitur rationabile est, ut magnam quandam, guae capi nondum potest, fides antecedat rationem, procul dubio quantulacumque ratio, guae hoc persuadet, etiam ipsa antecedit fidem." ("It is thus a reasonable commandment that faith should precede reason. For, if this precept is not reasonable, then it is unreasonable; which God forbid! If therefore it is reasonable that faith should precede reason in certain great things, not yet comprehensible, so doubtless that little shred of reason which persuades us of this must itself precede faith.")
Pascal tries to adapt himself to St. Augustine, and repeats this thought under different forms. Thus: "Il n'y a rien de si conforme à la raison que ce désaveu de la raison." ("There is nothing so conformable to reason as this disavowal of reason.") And further: "Deux excès: exclure la raison, n'admettre que la raison." ("Two excesses: to exclude reason, and to admit nothing else.") And again, as though defying himself: "L'extrême esprit est accusé de folie, comme l'extrême defaut. Rien que la médiocrité est bon... c'est sortir de l'humanité que de sortir du milieu." ("Excess, like defect, of intellect is accused of madness. Nothing is good but mediocrity. To leave the mean is to abandon humanity.") When Montaigne preaches: "Keep in the common path", etc., he speaks but as nature dictates. Montaigne's "philosophy", as he himself acknowledges frankly, is no more than a soft pillow to help him to sound sleep. He was elected by God Himself to hymn the "golden mean" which Aristotle, the father of "scientific" philosophy, bequeathed to humanity. But Pascal does not and will not sleep; the sufferings of Christ will not allow him to sleep until the end of the world. Can reason sanction, or even justify, so insensate a decision? Reason is but the incarnation of the "golden mean". And she will never, in any circumstances, abdicate of her own free will. She can be cast down by force from her throne, but she cannot be persuaded by argument, for is she not of her very nature the only source of all proof? And whatever St. Augustine may say to the contrary, least of all will she give up her sovereign rights in favour of her mortal enemy "faith". The best illustration of this truth is the famous dispute between St. Augustine and Pelagius, the dispute which formed the starting-point of all Pascal's researches.
What did the Pelagians want? One thing only: to "reconcile" faith with reason. But, as the reconciliation could not be genuine, they found themselves constrained at last to submit faith to reason. Their principle thesis was as follows: "Quod ratio arguit non potest auctoritas vindicare." ("What reason has proved faith cannot disprove.") In affirming this principle the Pelagians were only repeating the conclusions of Greek philosophy, or rather of all human philosophy, which for the first time in Europe had found itself confronted with the fatal dilemma: What should man do? Trust to innate and immutable reason which holds the eternal principles within itself, or acknowledge a power which is above reason, a power which is living and consequently fortuitous and capricious (for all that is alive is fortuitous and capricious)? When Plato declared that the greatest misfortune that could befall a man was to become a misologos, he was already saying what Pelagius was to say after him. This thesis had been bequeathed to him by his great and incomparable master Socrates. And not to him only; all the schools of Greek philosophy received the same legacy from Socrates: Trust in nothing and no one: everything can deceive; only reason will not deceive us, only reason can put an end to our unrest, can give us a firm ground, can give us certainty.
It is true that Socrates was not so consistent as is generally supposed. In certain important, very important circumstances ~f his life he refused to obey reason, and listened only to the voice of a mysterious creature whom he called his "daemon". Nor did he attempt to conceal the fact. It is equally true that Plato was even less consistent in this respect than Socrates. His philosophy always borders on mythology and often slips into it. But "history" has not accepted Socrates' "daemon" and has cleansed Plato's philosophy from myths. The "future" belonged on the one hand to Aristotle, and on the other to the Stoics, those narrow followers of Socrates who in their narrowness appealed best to history, and gradually took possession of the mind of thinking man. The Stoics had taken from Socrates and Plato all that they could yield in defence of reason. And their main argument was the same as that which Socrates, wisest of men, recognized as such by God Himself, developed before his spellbound hearers a few hours before his death (the pagan God had given him, through his oracle, the keys of the kingdom of heaven). Socrates had said that the greatest misfortune which could befall a man was to become a misologos. Let him lose riches, honour, family, and fatherland - these are but trifles; but let him lose reason and all is lost. Friends, honour, riches, and fatherland are mere transitory things; someone, some chance has given them to us without consulting us, and can at any moment take them away, equally without consulting us. But reason was given us by none, it belongs neither to you nor to me, it is neither of our friends nor of our enemies, neither among our own people nor among strangers, neither here nor there, before nor after. It is everywhere and always, among us and above us all. We must learn to love it only, this eternal reason, always the same, subject to none; a man must see in it the essence of his being; then there will no longer be anything mysterious or alarming in this world which was hitherto so inexplicable and terrifying. There will no longer be any need to fear the invisible Master who was once the source of all good and the executor of human destiny. This Master was powerful and almighty as long as his gifts were esteemed and his threats feared. But if we decide to value the gifts of reason alone, to attach importance only to the praise or blame of reason, that by which nos laudabiles vel vituperabiles sumus (as the Pelagians said), and look on the gifts of the Master as indifferent, adiaphora - then who could measure himself against man - man who has emancipated himself from God? All the Hellenic schools are unanimous about this: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Epicureans (see Lucretius's De rerum natura), and the Stoics. Only the early and late Stoic schools concentrated too much on this thought, (especially the Platonic Stoics, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius), and underlined it, so to speak, too heavily, which is what human nature cannot endure; it dislikes the "too much" above all things.
Nevertheless Socrates and Plato are the fathers of the Stoics, and even Aristotle is as nearly allied to Stoicism as any of the pure Stoics. One may even say that it was Aristotle who supported and rescued that objective and autonomous reason which Socrates discovered. For it was he who originated the theory of the "mean", he who taught men the great truth that if one wishes to keep one's understanding intact one must not try it with questions beyond its power. Or rather, he taught men how to put any question in such a form that it should not infringe upon the sovereign rights of reason. For it was he who invented the fiction (veritatem aeternam) that questions which one cannot answer are questions without meaning in themselves, therefore unpermissible. From Aristotle till this day people have only asked questions on subjects on which reason allows questions to be asked. All the rest is adiaphoron to us, indifferent, as it was to the Stoics. The most remarkable exponent of the new philosophy, who considered himself with justice the continuer of Aristotle's work, made Stoic indifference towards everything that happens on earth the first and indispensable commandment of philosophy. In his Logic - which is also an ontology - he makes Horace's rule into a first principle: Si fractus illabatur orbis, impavidum ferient ruinae. [if the heavens should crack over him, the ruins would strike him unafraid - AK.]
And not only Hegel, but any modern thinking man, if he will but speak frankly, must endorse Hegel's words. Otherwise expressed, what was true for antiquity is true for us, the thoughts on which we live are the thoughts of Stoicism. Let men and things pass away, kingdoms and peoples perish; let all things cease to be; it is all adiaphoron (indifferent), provided that no attack is made on the kingdom of the ideal, where reason and its laws hold undisputed sway. Reason was before the world, and its ideal laws and principles are eternal; they come from no one. When reason decides pudet, let every one be ashamed; when it says ineptum, let every one be indignant; when impossibile, let every one bow to it. And against reason there is no complaint, no appeal; or, as Pelagius said: Quod ratio arguit, non potest auctoritas vindicare. And St. Augustine, as we have seen, speaks as Pelagius; even Pascal sometimes found that it was better to disobey his Lord than his reason. For the praise of reason is the supreme good that man can expect, either on earth or in heaven. And the condemnation of reason is the worst. Can it be otherwise? Can we overcome Stoicism in philosophy, can we reject Pelagianism? Can one transpose Pascal's words and say: The Lord commands more imperatively than reason? For, if you disobey reason you will only be a fool, but if you disobey the Lord you will lose your own soul.